Should I stay or should I go?

A clean slate for A levels is tempting. Once you’ve finished GCSEs you might want to move on. But should you stay on at your school for what are arguably the most critical years of your education, or move to a to a new, exciting but less familiar scene – sixth form or further education college?

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Don’t choose for the wrong reasons, says Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School. “This is too big a decision to just follow the crowd,” he says. “These are crucial years. This has to be right for you.”

Sixth form is over in a flash. No sooner have you tackled new layers of knowledge and new ways of learning, it’s time to take exams and consider your next steps.

Why would you choose to remain at your school of the last few years? Many reasons, say teachers. Class sizes are most often smaller, you have different uniform, even no uniform. You might have a common room and enjoy all
the kudos of being the oldest in school. Teachers know you, your friends go way back and you’ll waste less time getting your head around a new place.

If you feel “labelled” by teachers, staying put might not be right, but many students like the continuity and familiarity of a school sixth form. Feeling secure frees up headspace for more demanding study – A levels are tougher than many imagine. “These are crucial formative years,” says Mr Fenton.

“My son refused to even look at sixth form college,” says mother Sarah Nicholson, whose oldest child has opted to stay at his secondary school sixth form. “He likes being a big fish in a small pond, knowing the staff, hanging out with the younger kids and being king of the bus. He likes the shift in relationship between teachers he’s known from years ago – they now get treated like young adults.”

But if you’re ready to shake things up, college offers a fresh start. There you’ll mingle with possibly thousands of 16 to 19 year olds – and you’ll probably find some soulmates there. It will bring you out of your comfort zone at first, but could give you a huge lift in confidence before you tackle university or work. “Many of our students feel that at 16, they’re ready for new challenges and a fresh, more adult learning environment, says Rob McAuliffe, principal of Christ the King 6th Form, which has some 3000 students across London and Kent, and where results are some of the best in the region. “But we know exams are only a means to an end, and whether students go on to university or follow a vocational route, they need to start planning for their future careers.”

“School sixth forms offer more structure than colleges, where students often have hours of untimetabled “study” time, and often spend them in thecafé or in front of a screen. Some young people simply don’t want the uncertainty of unscheduled hours, says Dr Nicholson. “My son says he’s in school with his mates all day so he has no choice of where to be. He wouldn’t have been ready for that self discipline.”

Try to choose somewhere where friends have similar hopes and ambitions for the future, says Mr Fenton. Wherever you choose, have a look at the “normal” outcomes for sixth formers. “Check these are what you want for yourself,” he says.

Smaller classes at school sixth forms allow staff more bandwidth to give individual careers attention, says Nick Dyson, head of sixth form at Burgess Hill Girls. “We spend about 10 – 15 hours of one to one planning with each student,” he says. “We can be more flexible – about choices, university deadlines and so on.” And when you’re making decisions about the future, the internet can get you so far but face to face reassurance – the chance to chat through options with someone who knows you well – can help you make the right call at crunch time, he says.